I have been around long enough to see buzz-words come and go. Now as it turns out I’ve been around long enough to see some of them that came and went come back again.
One of those words is empowerment.
A couple of decades ago it was said that the Boomer Generation wanted to be empowered to think for themselves and make some decisions. They wanted to feel as if they mattered. They needed to know that their thoughts and opinions carried a little weight….even at their places of employment.
Consultants blanketed companies sharing this wisdom with anyone who would listen. (and pay for it) The business leaders of the day quickly adopted this word as a kind of cure-all for whatever was ailing their organization.
The word hung around for a long time; until people figured out that telling someone they were empowered and actually empowering them were two very different things.
The word faded a bit from prominence but never went away completely. Some organizations were actually successful in empowering their people. For most however it was more of a rallying cry than an actual business strategy.
With all of the “what do Millennials want” research going on the empowerment word is again buzzing about organizations like bees in a flower garden. The research seems to show that one of the key strategies to engage the Millennial generation is to empower them.
So here we go again. Or do we?
My own, albeit somewhat limited, experience with Millennials tells me that they won’t be fooled by mere words. They don’t just want to be empowered, they need to be empowered. They need to matter, they need to make a difference.
If they are not challenged and given the opportunity to grow at the job they have then they will find another place to work. A place that will challenge and empower them. There may not have been plentiful opportunities for Boomers to change jobs 20 years ago but there are tons of opportunities today. If your Millennial employees are not challenged and empowered, for real, they will simply leave.
Companies may have been able to get away with talking empowerment in the past but these days they have to actually empower their people.
Empowerment is authorizing a person to think. It is allowing them to take action, control work and make decisions about their job in autonomous, self-directed ways. It is feeling self-empowered to take control of one’s own destiny.
If your people have to wait for permission, authority or approval to take action then you may be saying they are empowered but they are not. They absolutely are not.
The reason empowering cultures fail at most organizations is that empowering people comes with a level of risk that most leaders are not willing to accept. I think they figure that because it’s their rear-end on the line that they should be making the decisions.
That’s understandable but it is also a managerial mindset, not a leadership mindset.
Authentic Leaders allow their people to take measured risk. They don’t let their people take crazy chances but they trust the people they hire enough to let them try new things. Even things that they as the leader wouldn’t have tried themselves.
Authentic Leaders let their people think. They know that if everyone is thinking just like them then they aren’t really thinking at all. You must allow and even encourage your people to share their ideas without fear of criticism or consequences. The moment one of your people hesitates to speak up or share an idea is the same moment that empowerment stops.
Authentic Leaders allow their people to make decisions. Even decisions they know are probably wrong. They won’t let them make millions dollar mistakes. But they know letting them mess up decisions that could cost the company some money can be some of the most cost effective training they will ever receive.
If you’re hiring good people then unleash the power of those people by truly empowering them. Let them take some risks, let them think and let them make some decisions on their own, even some big decisions from time to time.
A couple of decades ago companies could get away with talking about empowerment. That won’t work today. If you refuse to empower tomorrow’s leaders today then you put the very life of your organization at risk.